One of the big story lines surrounding the Spurs coming into this season was the transformation their offense would have to undergo. With Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge getting more touches, San Antonio was going to have no choice but to become a slower, more methodical team. A quick look into the numbers suggests they have.
Pace measures the number of possessions a team averages per 48 minutes. By that stat, the Spurs are actually averaging almost the same amount of possessions they averaged last season but one fewer than they did in their championship season. Their pace numbers have been decreasing while the league's has been increasing. They are now 26th in pace in the NBA with a mark that would have ranked 18th last year.
Going by shot clock use, the Spurs can be considered a very slow team. They rank in the bottom third in the league in shots coming within 22 and 18 seconds, which isn't surprising since they are not a prolific transition team. The more telling number is the frequency in which they score in the 18-15 seconds range. Only two other squads -- the Jazz and the Grizzlies -- rank below them. The Spurs simply don't pull the trigger early.
By those two measures, many consider the Spurs one of the slowest teams in the league. Yet while pace and shot clock use are good indicators of how a team plays in terms of possessions per game, they fail to capture the aspects of motion and speed within those possessions. To put it in other words, are possessions per game a good way to judge how fast or slow an offense truly is?
According to pace and shot clock usage the Spurs and the Raptors are very similar teams. Other stats, however, reveal that they are nothing alike. The Raptors average 311 passes per game to the Spurs' 345, per SportVU data. The average touch time -- how long a player holds the ball -- is 2.85 seconds for Toronto and 2.58 for San Antonio. The Raptors rank third in the league in dribbles per touch at 2.39 while the Spurs rank 19th with 2.09. The Spurs are also among the leaders in speed and distance stats while the Raptors lag behind.
Those numbers are saying that while both teams get roughly the same number of offensive possessions, the Spurs pack a lot of action into theirs while Toronto is a plodding half court team that doesn't have a ton of ball or player movement. On the court it looks like this:
Obviously those are hand picked sequences, but the type of shot the two teams get is similar and so is the shot clock range. The Spurs set it up by having a pass, a hand off and a drive-and-kick while the Raptors simply have Lowry walk the ball up court and pull up. That's the difference between the Spurs and other squads, regardless of pace: when they are not throwing the ball to the post -- something they do at a league-high level, to be fair -- they keep it moving.
Even compared to a relatively fast team in terms of possessions per game and shot clock use, like the Thunder, San Antonio looks positively energetic as soon as you look at ball and player movement. The Thunder rank ninth in pace but are an isolation-heavy squad who rarely passes (last in the league) and doesn't move much or very quickly on offense. They are "faster" by traditional measures but are not particularly dynamic in the half court. Their offense is more similar to the Raptors' than, for example, the Warriors'.
Not only we often confuse pace with how kinetic a team is, but the stat was also at one point associated with quality offense simply because more possessions equaled more points per game. Now that we take it into account and adjust for it, we know one is not dependent on the other. The 76ers are among the teams which play faster but are dead last in offensive rating while both the Cavaliers and the Spurs score at a top five rate per possession while ranking in the bottom five in pace.
Pace is still a valuable statistic because it allows us to know which teams get more possessions per game. Some want as few as possible while others as many as they can get. By knowing that, we can figure out other things about their identities. It can provide a good a starting point in a quest to figure out why a team plays the way it does. But it's not the end of the search -- not with the new tools we have at our disposal.
Calling the Spurs a low-paced team, evoking the Twin Towers era and contrasting them to the high-paced Warriors is as tempting as it would be reductive. Despite being almost in opposite ends of the pace spectrum, San Antonio and Golden State have much in common in terms of offensive identity.
Offenses have evolved to a point in which pace is almost irrelevant both when it comes to entertainment value and efficiency. Fortunately, the data available to the public as well as our understanding of strategy has evolved as well. A few years ago a team like the Spurs might have been called slow, boring and offensively-challenged simply because it averaged a comparatively low amount of possessions -- and consequently, points -- per game.
Now we know better.